Secretary Napolitano is seeking your help to resolve a perplexing issue. She says, “Your breadth of knowledge and insight will provide… a better understanding of what homeland security truly means.” (See and hear the Secretary’s video message on YouTube.)
To grapple with the issue of meaning, we are being asked to participate in a National Dialogue on the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review where we are offered six topics:
- Counterterrorism and Domestic Security Management
- Securing our borders
- Smart and tough enforcement of immigration laws
- Preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters
- Homeland security national risk assessment
- Homeland security planning and capabilities
If you didn’t notice, these are the four external elements of the Secretary’s oft-repeated five responsibilities (or priorities or goals… the nature-of-being can shift ever so subtly) plus two processes that might influence how the responsibilities are fulfilled. (Please see Jessica Flanigan-Herrera’s prior post on the National Dialogue.)
Imagination is the organ of meaning. (C.S. Lewis)
Is the sum of these parts the meaning the Secretary has asked us to help with? Are these — or some synthesis of these — what we mean by homeland security?
Is the Secretary asking a question of epistemology? Is she attempting to define and organize knowledge that already exists? Or seeking to better understand how we might understand? Maybe she just wants confirmation that her four categories and two processes conform with what the demos considers meaningful. The Sophists would have argued this is the only knowledge — or meaning — that matters.
Perhaps the Secretary has a more ontological goal. She offers four categories and two processes that are presumably in relationship with each other and with other categories and processes. Are we to help her conceive and craft an architecture of homeland security?
If particulars are to have meaning, there must be universals. (Plato)
Personally I tend toward teleological explanations. What is the purpose of homeland security? Once purpose is clear it is often easier to discern meaning — or potential meaning.
In her five responsibilities, goals… or whatever, the Secretary has set out some action-objectives, but her purpose is unstated (or, at least, incomplete). I think she and many others presume the purpose of homeland security is self-evident. Maybe to you, but I would prefer an explicit statement.
On the National Dialogue site one of the QHSR study teams recommends the following first-draft mission/vision statement for Counterterrorism and Domestic Security Management:
To mobilize the American effort for preventing terrorist and other attacks, preparing for disasters, and assuring the resilience of civil society and the critical networks and functions that are essential to preserving a free and prosperous nation. We achieve this by providing active leadership, removing barriers, and providing incentives for the sustained engagement of the American people, the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and our international partners.
I focus in on the reference to “resilience of civil society” and a “free and prosperous nation.” Those sound like purposes. Are these the right purposes? How might we know? Is “sustained engagement of the American people,” a purpose or a method?
Are we to help the Secretary discern homeland security purposes and distinguish between ends and means? Or is this just an instrumental exercise in tasking the Department of Homeland Security… something considerably different than determining what homeland security means.
No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point.(Jean Paul Sartre)
The Department of Homeland Security exists. The Department does things, including counterterrorism, border security, immigration enforcement, and disaster preparedness, response and recovery.
I exist. I do things. The Department and I are both very busy doing things. Does this establish our meaning? Maybe. If so, my meaning is pretty ephemeral.
There is a temptation — especially when a pedant begins to throw around philosophical jargon — to decide its nothing more than words. But Sartre also wrote, “Words are more treacherous and powerful than we think.” From our own experience we know this truth.
Perhaps what determines meaning is why we do what we do. What is our motivation? Our rationale? Our intent? What is our envisioned outcome and our actual outcome? How do we make sense of the difference between intended and actual? Are we prepared to take specific responsibility for both the what and why — and consequences — of what we do? Have we given it enough thought to even know why?
Your knowledge, insight, and imagination is being solicited for comments on the QHSR. Section 2401 of the 2007 Act implementing recommendations of the 9/11 Commission requires, “Each quadrennial homeland security review shall be a comprehensive examination of the homeland security strategy of the Nation, including recommendations regarding the long-term strategy and priorities of the Nation for homeland security and guidance on the programs, assets, capabilities, budget, policies, and authorities of the Department.”
The first phase of dialoging ends on Sunday. As of yesterday, the survey responses on the site suggest that 100-200 folks have made specific contributions. You are being invited to make meaning. That’s a generous invitation. It is worth some weekend thinking and writing.
She has asked for your help. I think she — and we — need your help. Join the National Dialogue at http://www.homelandsecuritydialogue.org/
Editorial Note: If you have not already done so, please review Catherine Dale’s (Congressional Research Service) study entitled, National Security Strategy: Legislative Mandates, Execution to Date, and Considerations for Congress. Ms. Dale’s study is especially helpful in situating the QHSR within the broader framework of national security strategy-making. Further, while her language is more attuned to systems management than to philosophy, I was encouraged to my comments above by several of her insights.)